What Russia Should Do Not to Lose the New Struggle for Influence in the Balkans
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall, Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

Moscow needs to move away from the policy of bilateral privileged partnerships that will increasingly become a source of problems and move to a multi-vector cooperation, not only developing relations with all countries of the Balkan region, but also establishing interaction with new actors, the believe the authors of the new Valdai Club report, released on September 28, 2018.

In the foreign policy of all Balkan states, the Euro-Atlantic vector is dominant, but economic and political supremacy of the West in the region over the past 20 years has not brought the expected results in terms of transformation and development. Thus, new actors like China, Turkey and Arab countries play an increasingly significant role here.

In a number of countries, first of all Serbia, there is still a request for Russian presence, but it remains largely symbolic, so the ability of Moscow to influence the regional situation is very limited. These conclusions were made by speakers at the “The Balkans Today: Challenges for Russia” expert discussion, held at the Valdai Discussion Club on September 28, 2018.

After the end of wars in the former Yugoslavia and until 2014, the Balkans were on the periphery of the European Union’s interests, but the deterioration of relations with Russia prompted the EU to move actively into the region in order to prevent the expected spread of Moscow’s influence. Alexander Pivovarenko, one of the authors of the report, titled “Where Are the Balkans Heading? A New Cooperation Paradigm for Russia”, which was presented during the discussion, said that the Balkans are perceived by the European Union as a transit region, which should connect Western Europe with Asia. The key project here is the Pan-European transport corridor X from Salzburg to Thessaloniki, passing through Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia. The fact that the region’s countries realize the importance of their transit role is evidenced by the gradual establishment of cooperation between the countries which fought against each other a little more than twenty years ago, stressed Ekaterina Entina, who is also a co-author of the report.

In parallel, attention to the Balkans from the United States is also growing. It is traditionally seen in terms of military presence (American military bases are located on the territory of three countries in the region) and the involvement of the Balkan states in NATO structures. But the US is also increasing its political influence in the Balkans, Entina said. From year to year, Brussels is helpless in resolving internal crises in the region, while Washington solves them easily, demonstrating the failure of the EU. The energy component plays an increasingly important role in the US policy: take, for example, the LNG terminal on the Croatian island of Krk and the Trans-Adriatic gas pipeline through Greece and Albania.

The EU and the US have been the main players in the Balkans for the past thirty years, the participants in the discussion noted. Joining the Euro-Atlantic structures remains the strategic goal of those countries of the region which are still not there. According to Entina, even Serbia, which did not proclaim the goal of joining NATO, is de facto participating in the alliance’s structures. However, the process of integration of the Western Balkans with the European Union proved to be more difficult than expected, and, as a result, the regional elites, on whose loyalty the West still relies, are returning to the traditional role of balancing between the various centers of power.

The new actors in the Balkans are China, Turkey and the Arab countries, in particular the UAE. Cooperation with them, first of all, on infrastructure projects, is perceived by the Balkan elites as a window of additional opportunities in the sphere of development. It is important that these states, unlike the EU, do not attach political conditions to economic cooperation. A special role is played by Turkey, whose presence has significantly transformed over the past decades. If in the 1990s Turks put a stake on individual religious and ethnic groups, today they cooperate with all countries of the region, and over the past ten years the volume of economic relations between them increased six-fold. As relations with the West cool down, Turkey increasingly acts as an independent player in the Balkans. According to Entina, Ankara does not formalize the hierarchy between the Balkan countries, dividing them into successful and unsuccessful ones, as Brussels does, which increases the attractiveness of cooperation with Ankara.

Against this background, Russia's economic and political presence in the Balkans looks rather modest. If we take Serbia, which is considered the most Russia-friendly country in the region, its trade turnover with the EU is 10 times greater than with Russia, and joint exercises with NATO are held three times more often than with the Russian armed forces. A special topic is the Russian media presence. According to the third co-author of the report Dejan Novaković, director of the Adriatic Council, who recorded a video message for the expert discussion, the western narrative dominates the Serbian media, and the influence of the Russian Sputnik agency, which is supposed to convey the Russian point of view, is minuscle. Russia’s economic interests in the Balkans have been undermined, at least since 2016, by harsh anti-Russian propaganda in the local media, Ekaterina Entina added. In addition, humanitarian cooperation, where “we lost everything in 30 years,” is at an extremely low level, she said. Students from the Balkan countries choose Chinese or German as their second foreign language, and grants of Russian universities are practically inaccessible to them.

At the same time, as Dejan Novaković noted, traditional cultural and spiritual ties give rise to the regional leaders’ high expectations in relation to Moscow. When these expectations are not met, this leads to an even greater reduction of Russia’s influence in the Balkans in the long term. As a means to preserve this influence, he suggested creating a strong network of information channels, building up energy cooperation and providing clear support to the region’s conservative forces.

Russia will be present in the aspirations of the Balkan peoples, regardless of whether it does something in the Balkans or not, Ekaterina Entina said. The same applies to external players who explain the unrest in the countries of the region (Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina) by Moscow’s interference. According to the expert, there is no need for Russia to intervene, as it understands that no one can guarantee favorable results, and it is not in its interests to create additional hotbeds of tension in this explosive region.

What should be the policy of Russia in the Balkans, corresponding to its national interests and enabling it to meet the request for presence there, based on centuries of cultural and spiritual ties? The main recommendation of the report’s authors is that it is necessary to depart from bilateral privileged partnerships, which will increasingly become a source of problems, and move to a multi-vector cooperation, not only developing relations with all countries of the region, but also establishing interaction with the new players. Thus, it is reasonable to push forward the issue of Turkey’s joining the BRICS and the SCO, which will have a direct positive effect for the Balkans. The appearance of such a large and promising player as BRICS (through the coordinated presence of China, Russia and Turkey) “will significantly change the balance between the EU and other international actors in the Balkans,” they write in the report.